Cyprus’ European success story is not over, with one step away from at least two teams entering the group stages of the Europa League after Omonia Nicosia and AEK Larnaca pulled off a surprise away wins in the playoffs.
Omonia Nicosia beat Belgian side KAA Gent 2-0 away, while AEK secured a 2-1 win over Ukrainian SC Dnipro 1 in Slovakia, primed for qualifying to the group stage of the Europa League.
A third team in the tournament, reigning title holders Apollon Limassol, drew 1-1 at home with Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus.
Cyprus could have a fourth team in a European tournament group stage if APOEL Nicosia knocks out Swedish Djurgårdens IF in the Conference League playoffs.
However, their 3-0 away defeat in Sweden leaves a big task for the Cypriot side to qualify in Nicosia next week, although APOEL has squeezed through similar tight spots.
AEK took a 2-0 lead with two goals from Israeli Omri Altman and Bosnian Hrvoje Milicevic but saw Dnipro score a late goal in the 90th minute with Oleksandr Pikhalyonok.
The Ukrainian team, with no European experience, as this was its first participation, had to overcome not playing since December, when the Ukrainian season ended.
Ukraine’s championship did not kick off in 2022 due to Russia’s invasion in February.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian teams have always performed well in European tournaments, with Shakhtar Donetsk winning the Europa League (then UEFA Cup) in 2008-2009.
The Larnaca club started their campaign in the Champions League second qualifying round as the runner-up in the league but could not see off Danish FC Midtjylland.
They lost in a penalty shootout after both games finished 1-1.
It went to the third preliminary round of the Europa League, where AEK knocked out Partizan Belgrade.
Apollon had a tough task, as the Greek champions are more experienced in Europe and have a much bigger budget.
Olympiakos’ squad is worth a whopping €117.5 mln, according to Transfermarkt.com, while Apollon’s squad is worth €16.5 mln.
Champions Apollon started their European campaign from the third qualifying tie of the Champions League but failed to overcome Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa.
Despite winning their home game 2-0, the Cyprus champions were demoted to the Europa League as they had lost 4-0 in Haifa.
Cup winners Omonia Nicosia, against all odds, beat Belgium side, KAA Gent, away 2-0.
Omonia, led by the former Celtic player and coach Neil Lennon, escaped from the Ghalamco Arena in Gent with a serious handicap ahead of the second game in Nicosia next week.
The Greens shocked the Belgians with a goal on 20 minutes by 19-year-old Charalampos Charalambous, followed by a goal from Brandon Barker, who joined the club in the summer from Reading.
Should Apollon, Omonia and AEK Larnaca be successful in the Europa League playoffs, they will be cashing in at least €5 mln each from their endeavours.
In the worst-case scenario, the three teams will find themselves in the group stage of the Conference League, earning them a minimum of €2.94 mln.
A team winning a group stage fixture in the UEFA Europa Conference League gets €500,000, while a draw earns €166,000 each.
Qualifying for the September UEFA Europa League group stage will see each team earning €3.63 mln.
Teams in the group stage get €630,000 per match victory and €210,000 per draw.
Meanwhile, Cyprus women’s champions Apollon Ladies have secured a place in the final of the 4th group of the qualifying phase for the Champions League, following a 3-0 win over Latvian side SFK Riga.
Apollon Limassol women’s team will face Swiss Zurich FC, which prevailed 6-0 over Claksvik from the Faroe Islands.
The group final will be held on Sunday, August 21, at Makarios Stadium at 17:30.